When we read about the history of radar and its role in World War 2, we only ever hear about the scientists (‘boffins’) who invented it, all men.
We never hear about the ordinary men and ordinary women who stepped forward from their ordinary lives to do something extraordinary, so I thought I would do a piece for this 2017 Remembrance Week, about the Air Force* radar operators and the women in particular.
My own parents met when they both did this essential work in WW2 and there must have been thousands more. I have included some links at the end for other webpages about the ordinary operators. Women in the Air Force were members of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) and were referred to as WAAFs.
Radar was, of course, the Allies secret ‘weapon’ and there was such secrecy around it that the word itself wasn’t used if possible. Its development had started years before the war broke out and the boffins referred to it as Cuckoo, which had the double benefit of not being obvious in casual conversation, whilst also (for those in the know) of conveying the echo aspect of the technology, with the ‘Cuc’ being the outgoing signal and the ‘koo’ being its reflective signal. Similarly, the women recruited to operate the machines were not, initially called Radar Operators. In 1942, when my mother was called up to the WAAF, she was enrolled as a Clerk (SD) (as you can see in part of her service record below), with the SD standing for Special Duties, which could cover quite a lot of other work, including codes etc. SD became SD(O) and then RDF/Op in 1943 – RDF being the approved euphemism and standing
for Radio Direction Finding, which was thought to be sufficiently vague, given that direction finding by simple radio beacons had been in use for a long time and indeed continued in use for both air and sea navigation until the coming of satnav. However, as can be seen above, the open use of the term Radar Operator came in later the same year, and such operators wore the radio flash badge below:
There is only one book about the women radar operators, The Eyes of the few, by Daphne Carne (Macmillans, 1960 and no longer in print), that I have found although a number of other WAAF reminiscences are online and in print. To be fair, there is precious little about the male radar operators either. They were all vital and doing a demanding technical job of which none of them would previously have had the slightest knowledge and which had to be taught in such secrecy that they could not take their notes out of the classroom to revise. The main training school for radar
operators who were to be Plotters was at Leighton Buzzard, although plotters were also trained at Bawdsey, one of the birthplaces of radar. My mum went to the former and Daphne Carne to the latter.
Following training the women were posted to radar stations all over the UK, many in pretty isolated rural areas. The work was exacting and required immense patience and attention to detail. It was also emotionally draining as the girls had headsets connected to the flights of our aircraft they were watching. This meant that they heard men being shot at and even dying, over their headphones. My mother never spoke to me about her war time at all and I had to learn a lot of this from her brother, who told me after her death. The radar huts were often unheated and bitterly cold in the winter, since a lot of them were near the coast.
We don’t typically consider these women to have been technicians as they were not trained in the maintenance of the machines but they had to know a lot about the electrical and radio theory in order to coax the most information out of them.Applicants were asked about their mathematics skills, since hardly any would have had any physics at school in those days.
The first radar sets were not the circular screens with a rotating beam lighting up the image on the screen but were simple cathode ray oscilloscope which showed spikes, as below, for each return echo from the radio signal:
The interpretation became a lot easier when the circular rotating displays were introduced. The women had to work fast to do the trigonometry to figure out how fast incoming enemy planes were coming and given enough time for the air raid warnings to be given in the big cities, or for fighters to scramble at nearby airfields. Very often their own little radar stations would be on the receiving end of bombs from near misses of neighbouring target towns.
Those women took on technical work and did it amazingly in scary and unpleasant conditions and I think they should be remembered just as much as the scientists who invented radar and the brave pilots they were guiding.
*There were also women radar operators in the army but I am not very well informed about that so am not covering them here